As Homer heads towards a special election on a bond proposition for a new police station later this month, the city will be trying to convince residents to approve increasing the city sales tax to pay for it, which is a big sticking point for some voters. As part of KBBI’s Q&A series, a local business owner asked what goes into that number and why can’t the city just pay for it out of savings? KBBI’s Aaron Bolton tries to answer that one.
Lynda Reed can’t vote in the special election later this month because she’s not a city resident, but she does own Homer Art and Frame, which is in city limits. Reed adds that she does a good portion of her shopping in Homer too.
The city is asking residents to pay for $5 million of the police station project, and Reed said the .35-percent sales tax increase the city is asking for could impact her business.
She does acknowledge that the increase is small, but she still questions why it’s necessary.
“You’re talking to someone who thinks our sales tax is already too high. So yes, any additional is not really good,” Reed added.
So Reed wants to know how did we get to $7.5 million and what goes into that number anyway? But before we get to the numbers, let’s start with the need.
Homer Police Chief Mark Robl said there are a number of issues with the current station, the largest being space.
“We actually ran out of room in this building in the early to mid ‘90s, and we started adding Conexs out back for storage and other uses. We added one and then the second one a year or two later,” Robl said. “They’re crammed to the roof with stuff. We’re just completely out of room in this building.”
The roughly 5,000 square foot building is a maze of small rooms that have changed over the years to maximize space. Robl said that has led to glaring layout problems.
In order for prisoners to be booked, they’re unloaded in a parking lot next to the high school and come through the back door into a hallway before they get to a secure room.
“They’d have access to employees. They can turn in one direction and run out the back door of the building – very unsafe workflow for a police department to have a situation like this,” Robl noted.
He said a few prisoners have attempted to escape over the years, but he said that’s not the building’s only flaw. Robl adds that the station also doesn’t have enough room for some evidence processing equipment. He said some evidence can deteriorate before it’s process and some can’t be processed at all.
“That effects our solve rates on cases. It goes down,” Robl said. “Having a bigger evidence room, fully equipped, will definitely enable us to do a better job at solving some of our local crimes.”
The station also has flooding issues and Robl said inmates have been forced to stay in cells with 2 to 3 inches of standing water. The department is also out of compliance with federal law because it can’t separate juveniles from adult prisoners. Robl said the new station will solve that and several other issues.
The total price tag is $7.5 million. As for the cost of the building itself, it’s less than $5 million. So, where would that extra $2.5 million go?
Public Works Director Carey Meyer explains that public buildings typically aren’t designed based on a specified price tag, but rather the needs of the building and the purpose it’s intended to serve.
In this case, the Homer City Council did start with a single-story $6 million layout, but it later found it was missing several key features such as a sally port, which would allow prisoners to be transferred into the booking room and cells without walking through offices and hallways.
Meyer explains there are other costs such as design, which runs nearly $500,000. There’s also a $650,000 pot of money to help pay for inevitable changes during construction.
”No matter how long you think about your project, there are things that come up that you don’t want to be surprised with,” Meyer added. “When you start with a $5 million building and you add on the sally port, the civil site improvements, design, inspection, 1 percent for art, furnishing, communications, contingency and then buying the piece of property you’re sitting it on, that’s how you get to $7.5 million.”
As for where the money would come from, City Manager Katie Koester explains that the city’s current revenue streams are maxed out on services and maintaining the city’s current infrastructure. The city is also staring down a sizeable budget gap next year.
The city does have a reserve account, but Koester said that’s currently sitting at the recommended $5.5 million. She said drawing down on those funds would hamper the city’s ability to respond to an emergency such as an earthquake or to make small purchases throughout the year.
I circled back to Reed to see what she thought about the price tag and how the city is paying for it.
“It’s over whelming, it really is. There’s a lot to consider and a lot I don’t know about when it comes to construction costs,” Reed said. “I truly think some of this could be shaved off and some of this could be built for at least $7 million if they really watched their nickels and dimes.”
It is possible that the project could cross the finish line under cost, but it’s hard to say just how many nickels and dimes the city may be able save until voters have their say on June 26.